Mao leaned forward, opened her mouth, and bit into the pepper.
It was a tiny little pepper, little more than ball of light green. Having lived off grocery store bell peppers most of her life, Mao could hardly be faulted for assuming it was a harmless little thing that would be sweet and delicious.
The pepper crunched between her teeth, happily tearing into little bits and pieces. It was on the third chew that the tingle started. Mao continued to chew, a little uncertain but still assuming the best.
The feeling spread, though. Farther and farther through her mouth, all around. Then the heat began.
It wasn’t a light heat. It was deeper, fuller, more impactful than any other heat she had felt before. The pepper was like a small match dropping onto a pool of gasoline. Suddenly her mouth was aflame, and Mao needed to put it out.
She swallowed the partially-chewed pepper, then grabbed her water glass. It was already half-empty, and she downed the rest. The waiter, passing by, noticed, and asked if she wanted more. Mao nodded, and pointed with urgency, her eyes wide.
The waiter walked away, stopped at another table to ask how they were, then stopped at the terminal to put in another table’s order, one slow screen tap at a time.
Mao looked around. Her friends were all laughing about something else, paying no mind. Clara hadn’t touched her water yet, so while she was looking away, Mao grabbed it and started to chug. Her mouth burned like the deepest fires of hell, and the water was doing so little to douse it. She finished the glass of water and looked for another. There weren’t any she could reasonably nab, though, and tears came to her eyes with the pain in her mouth.
As the sweaty started to drip, the waiter returned with a jug. He refilled the two glasses in front of her, and Mao croaked a, “Leave the pitched please.” She drank and drank, and slowly the fire ebbed. When it was finally tolerable, she noticed her friends all looking at her.
“Everything okay, Mao?” Clara asked.
“Hm? Oh, yes, uh, fine,” Mao said. “What were you saying again?”
The conversation carried on as Mao dabbed her forehead with a napkin. She left the second pepper on her plate, unwilling to do a second round.